Huoshan Huangya Deep Dive
In 2020, Huoshan Huangya was listed among the Chinese first group of “new and excellent agricultural products.” The tea we today call Huoshan Huangya, named for Huoshan County, only properly got started in 1987 under the direction of Wang Zenong and Chen Yuan. These two tea experts tried their best to replicate a tea traditionally grown in the area. The first samples of their reconstructed Huangya were delivered to China's Commerce Department in 1989. Since then, the tea has been a limited hit. It represented some 39% of national yellow tea production in 2013 and had already been exported more than 30 countries as of 2017. Historical pedigree in part made this possible.
In Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, it is mentioned that “there are yellow buds(huangya) in the mountains of Shouchun which can be boiled and drank, giving one immortality if taken for a long period.” This text does not explicitly call this "bud" tea, and yellowness was probably a reference to the leaves natural appearance. Nevertheless, the 1867 edition of the Luan Gazzette argued that this was proof that a contemporary tea, one Huoshan Huangya, had ancient origins. There is no archaeological evidence to support this associaion, but Shouchun, later renamed Shouzhou, is a place name again mentioned in the Tang Dynasty’s Classic of Tea as a tea growing area. Another Tang Dynasty text, Sundry Histories of the Tang State, is the first to explicitly name Huoshan Huangya as a tea of Shouzhou.
Yellow Tea, meaning a processing style wherein light oxidization of tea leaves is affected through bagging or stacking, is held by some historians to have already existed by the Tang Dynasty. It is possible here however that the name is still just a reference to the tea's natural appearance, just as Anji White Tea has gotten its name for its pale fresh leaves, rather than being processed as a white tea. Almost a millennium later, the 1749 Huoshan Gazette is the first to explicitly mention a tea bearing the same name going through a distinct yellowing production method. It is possible that Huoshan Huangya was a yellow tea in the modern sense as early as the Tang Dynasty, but without archaeological evidence, its equally plausible that the name, huangya, is just a comment on the product's fresh leaf color or was an intentional allusion to the medicinal herb mentioned the Record of the Grand Historian. Savvy tea merchants have been appropriating and recycling product names for centuries.
However the tea got its name, the tribute tea system allowed Huoshan Huangya to develop for a thousand years between the Tang and Qing Dynasty, but faded away in the late 19th Century. Again, without archaeological evidence there is no guarantee that the product did not evolve over this long period, but after it was gone, Huoshan tea producers were at the mercy of the market. That much is certain. For much of the 20th Century, producers there made low-value green tea for the domestic market and black tea for the export market. In 1972, the Huoshan County government announced a plan to restart production of "high quality" tea. By then however, the process by which yellow tea was made was already a memory. After Wang Zenong and Chen Yuan’s recreation hit the market, the tea has gradually grown to be one of Huoshan County’s leading money makers.
As of 2018, 4000 RMB was the average amount of tea-related income per farmer in Huoshan County, and 95% of the county’s farming households had a tea plot of some size. Among these many producing households, not all Huoshan Huangya is created equal. Since 2008 the Huoshan government has started to invest and direct projects to strengthen, modernize, and standardize Huoshan Huangya's production. A 2016 survey found that 95% of tea farmers’ costs in three Huangya producing villages was human labor, mostly in picking and weeding. Pesticide use was present in two of the three villages, and chemical fertilizer application existed in all three, but utilization rates varied wildly. This study also found that mechanization of the yellowing process could reduce the processing costs anywhere from 50 to 66%, but the resulting inferior taste and fragrance continues to reduce final sale price when compared to purely handmade production. As a result, In Spring 2017, according to one market survey, various producers’ Mingqian pick Huangya had price points that varied as much as 1000 Yuan per Jin in price, despite ostensibly being from the same region and being picked at the same time.
The heavily heterogeneous, boutique-oriented market caused daily average price fluctuations as high as 100 Yuan/Jin in 2017. This market is as small as it is volatile. Despite such a volume of local and national government promotion, yellow tea in general is still just a curiosity and occasional indulgence even for Chinese boutique consumers. Huoshan residents themselves consume far more green tea than yellow tea. Cheaper, more machine friendly late season picks marketed as “Huang Dacha” have long existed, but generally struggle to find buyers. The government has also hardly stemmed the hemorrhages of peasant youth from Huoshan’s tea growing mountains. On the bright side, organic transition campaigns have been more successful. Starting in 2018, the Huoshan County government began educating cadre and organizing supplies. Since then, they have Designated several model farm plots, and distributed 400 tons of organic fertilizer and 800 anti-insect lamps.
There are three processing steps that give this tea its unique color and taste:
- 初闷 First Smothering: While the tea is still warm from “killing the green,” let it sit in a pan, vat, or tray for thirty minutes. The temperature of the vessel should be between 40 and 45 ℃, air moisture should be between 75 and 80%. This step takes no more than 30 minutes.
- 闷黄 Smother Yellow: Once leaf moisture has dropped down to 35-40%, it is possible to smother the yellow in earnest. The leaves are bagged up in paper or cloth bundles. Air temperature must then be between 30-35 ℃, and air moisture should still be between 75 and 80% as the tea sits in the bundles. Over 30 to 36 hours, the tea leaves will show a slight yellowing and release a floral odor.
- 堆黄 Pile Yellow: Once leaf moisture has reached 10-15%, the leaves are piled into bamboo trays and are allowed to naturally oxidize in the open air. The tea should be piled 28-32cm deep and sit until it becomes a vibrant yellow color after 2-3 days.
According to the County’ official grading standard, “the highest grade Huoshan Huangya should be made from at least 90% one-bud one-leaf picks. It should 被glossy green yellow in color, heavy in down, and consistently resemble a sparrow’s tongue in shape. The mellow scent should be long sustained in the cup and the Huigan should be obviously present.” None of these attributes are unique to Huangya or yellow tea more generally. Critically, if one wants to avoid green impostor products, there should not be the same grassy, alfalfa, and astringent notes unique to green tea. In aroma there should be a sweeter, slightly floral scent. If the Huangya has green tea taste and lacks a mellowed or floral scent, then there is a good chance you’ve bought a fake.